By MIchael Luis
While the Ferris wheel in Spirit Square has been a nice addition to Victoria’s holiday landscape, it’s another budding December tradition that has captured the city’s attention: The Jon and Roy Holiday Special. Started in 2008, 2013 marked the event’s fifth iteration (2011 saw no show). The concert has called the gorgeous Alix Goolden Hall home since Day 1, and always features a diverse platform of entertainment, both local and from abroad. Past performers include Bahamas, Wake Owl, Kim Churchill, and Hey Ocean!
This year’s incarnation featured perhaps the tightest lineup yet. First to perform was Scott Stanton and Dave Lang of Victoria’s own Current Swell. Current Swell has played the Holiday Special in years past, so it was a very welcome return. The highlights of their quick set included an extended jammed-out version of “Get What’s Mine” which featured whirling guitars and silky harmonies, and “Ulysses,” a song off of their as-yet unreleased fifth record, which had a catchy whoo-oo falsetto chorus.
Second was Ryan Guldemond, known for his work with Vancouver-based group Mother Mother. Fellow Vancouver musicians, Hannah Georgas and Mother Mother’s drummer Ali Siadat joined the stage after his first song. While the stripped-down trek through Mother Mother cuts like “Love Dissipates” was worth a decent ride, it was his bizarre and explosive playing which stole the show. Utilizing an array of effects pedals, he spiked, chugged, and shredded through guitar breakdowns that sat within the jangly tunes. It was entertaining to see this side of Guldemond’s musicianship, as it can get lost in the pop-rock of his main band. The trio also performed a chill-inducing ethereal rendition of Georgas’ “Robotic.”
Third up was Portland, Oregon’s Horse Feathers. The only non-Canadian performer of the night, and having only played in Victoria once before, it seemed not too many attendees had heard of the band. That clearly wasn’t an issue though, as Horse Feathers were the surprise of the show. Bringing in folk and even Celtic influences, the five-piece have beautifully arranged songs that feature builds and releases, thunderous drums, and soaring violins. The two violinists also played the handsaw with their bows, something which can come off as a gimmick. However, they tastefully utilized the tool’s siren-like roar, placing it in an atmospheric section which bordered on post-rock. Every song of their set seemed to illicit a different emotion, from longing, to depression, to joy, with the smooth vocals of frontman Justin Ringle acting as the guide.
What made this year’s Holiday Special truly special was the way Buck 65 was incorporated into the show. While bands tore down and set up, he sat down with his laptop and told comedic stories about his hometown county fair, his first kiss, and a road-trip with a bandmate’s violent, flatulent grandfather. The stories kept the audience’s attention between bands, and turned the night from a concert into a revue. With his performance, Buck 65’s alternative hip-hop was a little out-of-place among the indie-folk and roots rock of his musical peers. However, the 41-year old from Nova Scotia proved why he is the original Canadian hip-hop misfit, with his raspy delivery, blues samples, and spastic dance moves. By the time he flew into 2003’s crossover single “Wicked and Weird,” the crowd was his.
Seeing Jon and Roy is like grabbing a beer with a good old friend you only get a chance to see a couple of times a year. He’s the same guy you’ve always known, and you’ve seen him loads of times, but he always finds some way to surprise you with something new. With a career that spans a decade, Victoria’s Jon and Roy are truly a local treasure. Jon Middleton and Roy Vixer (also joined by bassist Lou Sadava) gave a clinic in folk music that can be both mellow and exciting. “DT Stylee” stomped along with sweet vocals, a brushes-on-the-snare gallop, and a harmonica solo. The instrumental “Tavern Song” saw the guys travel into darker territory with compound-time arpeggios, and a ripping guitar lick that blended acoustic ideas with — dare I say — heavy metal. And whereas Jon and Roy are known mainly as a folk group, they also effectively moonlight as an alt-hip-hop and reggae/ska act. The former style was represented in their opener, “Deep Steez,” a beach-ready spoken word jam, and the latter in “Deerfoot” which featured echoed dub up-strokes and a gut-busting drum solo.
With so many musicians coming on and off the stage throughout the night, it seemed fitting that Jon and Roy’s set would feature some guests. Current Swell’s Lang and Stanton came on to sing harmonies, Laura Mitic of local group Carmanah played some violin, and Dave St. Jean of Current Swell and Dope Soda played trombone on “Let it Go”, an up-tempo ska song which closed the main set on an energetic note. After an uproarious cheer, Jon and Roy came back with an encore of “Little Bit of Love,” the band’s breakthrough single, and a cover of the The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” which had the sold-out crowd popping out of their seats to sing and dance.
With a new EP coming out next year, Jon and Roy appear to be nowhere near slowing down. Here’s looking forward to the 2014 Holiday Special where we can whip out our ugly sweaters and open ears once more.